American Civil Religion and the Dangers of Removing Scripture’s Moral Teachings from Their Context

May 11, 2018 | James R. Rogers
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James R. Rogers investigates the different meanings of biblical law for Jews and Christians, and the mistake both make when they try to isolate the Torah’s moral teachings from their context. The result of this “reductionist inclination” can be found in American discourse about “Judeo-Christian morality,” a phrase that Rogers takes to refer primarily to the Ten Commandments:

[W]resting the Ten Commandments out of the book of Exodus (and Deuteronomy) and treating them as stand-alone moral requirements . . . misses the point of Exodus. . . . The popular view of Exodus [is neatly summed up] in the classic film, The Ten Commandments. . . . The film skips thirteen chapters in Exodus relating to the design and construction of the tabernacle, as well as all of Leviticus and Numbers, [much of which] relates to the sacramental environment around Israel given the presence of the tabernacle in Israel’s midst, all the way to the end of Deuteronomy.

And [then there’s] all the rigmarole about food, and sacrifices, and cleansing oneself from this and that. The problem is that all that stuff isn’t just so much rigmarole. . . . As reported in Exodus, the purpose of the exodus is that God would dwell in the midst of Israel in the tabernacle. . . . The exodus [thus] represents a signal turn toward the restoration of the fellowship that humanity had with God in Eden.

[T]his is not to dismiss the Ten Commandments as somehow unimportant. Indeed, the tablets go in the inner house of the tabernacle, in the ark of the covenant in the holiest of holies. The point rather is that, in the narrative of Exodus, the giving of the Ten Commandments is necessarily interwoven with the tapestry of God’s presence. As with the sacrificial laws, the food laws, the cleanliness laws, and other laws in Leviticus and Numbers, they’re not [just] rigmarole. . . .

But popular American culture pulls out and isolates the Ten Commandments, then skips over the last half of the book of Exodus [along with] Leviticus and Numbers, all of which connect the Ten Commandments with the grand pivot in God’s relationship with humanity. [Both] Moses and Jesus, and religion in general, are thus identified [in the popular view] with deracinated moral law. This civil religion—Christian ethics without the person of Christ; Judaic ethics without the person of God—has distorted the religions it purports to express. In doing so, it has hindered, rather than helped, both religion and religious engagement with the public square.

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